British Culture 101: 12 Things No Amount Of English Classes Can Teach You

Wellies with Union Jack pattern
Reading Time: 9 minutes

We all know that the British drive on the wrong side of the road and use some extra u’s in words that Americans have deemed unnecessary, and that you cannot wash your hands without either burning or freezing them numb, but there are a lot more to this fascinating country that I only found out after living, studying and working on the island for a couple of years.

It should be noted that despite the all-inclusive title of this article, having lived in the south of England, my insights may only account for a small slice of the Great British Bake Off Cake.

1) It’s Moist

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It’s no secret that it rains a lot, but have you thought about what all that dampness implies? Condensation that blackens bathroom walls, mould growing in the back corner of your wardrobe (and spreading onto your favourite pair of jeans), and a whole lot of slugs you have to slalom around on the pavement the morning after a night of heavy rain (and occasionally play hide and seek with them in the house, following the translucent slime glistening on the tobacco-coloured carpets, leading you from the back door to the frying pan-cabinet).

In short, it’s worth investing in some good quality wellies, copper tape to keep slugs out of the house, and getting used to the thought of showering with the windows wide open to generate enough ventilation (even in subzero temperatures).

Also, do not say the word moist – it’s apparently the most hated one in the vernacular.

2) A Blissful Nation

Despite their reputation of cold and distant, I actually find Brits to be quite chatty and nice – especially elderly women. Before you know it, you’ll be everyone’s Love and Darling, and you’ll be blessed more than you think – and I don’t mean the polite ‘bless you’ after you sneeze (although they’ll often even say ‘bless me’ when no one is around to react to their – somewhat ordinary – bodily function), but the ‘bless you’ they say whenever you do something adorable, awkward, or just plain silly.

3) Apologies Galore

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‘Tis true, the Queen’s people really are an apologetic bunch. While you can come across different versions of an ‘excuse me’ (from impatient to passive aggressive and straight up rude), they really do say sorry more than most nations. One of my favourite, most British moments ever was witnessing a girl, roughly my age, tripping and falling in the middle of a zebra crossing, a couple feet from everyone, then promptly apologising to fellow pedestrians. Bless her, would I say, were I British.

4) Lords and Lads

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If you’re crossing the Atlantic or the Channel entertaining overly romanticised desires about meeting your very own Mr. Darcy (whether it’s the Pride and Prejudice or Bridget Jones version of Colin Firth), I’ll have to disappoint you. While the British entertainment industry boasts with some fine specimen – humble, handsome, witty knights like Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch – they are rather the exception, not the norm. The common English dude (at university, at least) responds to the name ‘lad’, has great booze-consuming skills, feels the entire town is their toilet, and can easily be spotted wearing nothing but a Batman mask, cape and underwear, riding a beer bike in an Eastern European capital, in the name of yet another stag-do. At least there’s Ben and Jerry, the two guys we can always rely on.

5) English and English

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The difference between US and British English words such as fries and chips, chips and crisps, or eggplant and aubergine are rather elementary, but there are quite a few more sophisticated ones as well that grammar books don’t necessarily state, such as the subtle difference between aeroplane and airplane, or aluminium and aluminum.

I learnt quite early on in the States that calling warm outerwear ‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater’ will turn me into a subject of laughter (as if the latter was any less ridiculous of a name…), and I was also aware of the braces-suspenders, trousers-pants, and knickers-panties disparities, but I learnt a lot more particular British names for clothing in my three years of a costume design degree – and these are only contemporary items of clothing. A pinny (pinafore) is an apron, wellies (Wellingtons) are rain boots, a mackintosh is a rain jacket, and plimsolls are slip-on shoes one would most likely call sneakers in the US.

6) They Name Their Appliances

Henry Hoover range
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Firstly, it’s a Hoover, not a vacuum cleaner (Hoover, autocorrected to a capital H for its brand). Secondly, it’s Henry Hoover, rightful saviour of every household. Now, given its huge success, some variations are available, such as Henry’s significant other, Hetty (with large eyelashes and in, who would’ve guessed, pink), to inspire all family members to execute their chores in a timely manner and jolly mood. However, should the ordinary home-cleaning couple, Henry and Hetty not cater for your larger office’s or industrial premises’ dust-busting needs, let me suggest that you acquire the larger, stronger, posh name-bearing Charles or George, available in gender-neutral colours.

(No, I’m not getting paid by Henry Hoover to write this article, but I wish I was.)

7) Measurement Systems are a Hot Mess

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As a metric-kind of gal myself, I had a tough time adjusting to the imperial system used in the States. However, the UK is even worse. Although originally, they invented the British Imperial System (hence the name), they had to abandon it in favour of the metric in the 1990s in order to sit with the cool guys countries in the EU.

In theory, apart from pints of milk, beer and cider, and miles, everything should be metric, but in practice, it is all very confusing. Thanks to costume and set design, however, I am now a walking conversion table, having toughened up on multiplies of 2.5 and 30. For dressmaking, you take measurements in centimetres, but you take in an inch from the waist when it’s too loose. You use millimetres when drawing and explaining floor plans and side elevations, but try to figure out how many feet of 2”x4” timber you need for the set. Supermarkets often display both gallon and litre, or ounce and gram count on labels, yet it is still illegal to sell beer and cider in anything other than pints. And apparently, the drug market sells cannabis by the pound, and cocaine by the gram. (This is something I learnt from the World Wide Web, though, not personal experience). They refer to height in feet, and weight not in blissful kilograms, or – somewhat still logical – pounds, but in stones. Oh, and they also like to throw some Fahrenheit in the mix, just for added maths fun.

Thinking of this now, though, one of the (very few) perks of Brexit and breaking off the metric shackles of the European Union might be that Britons will once again be free to roam around using their various body parts to measure stuff.

8) Correspondence is a Lot Less Complex

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If your English lessons were anything like mine, you spent long hours learning to craft beautifully pretentious formal letters, that we were advised to use when applying for jobs or filing complaints (which, by the way, I never thought I’d actually have to do until I started an art assistant job and FedEx damaged a 2000 EUR painting we had shipped to Sweden… but I digress.) These letters usually started with the polite ‘Dear Sir/Madam,’ and after a bunch of pompous phrases, climaxed in a ‘Yours faithfully,’. When you start studying or working in the UK, however, you soon learn that instead of eloquent letters, a concise ‘Ok ta’ (Okay, thank you) will suffice. Optional: throw in a ‘cheers’ at some point, and you can pick up your British citizenship card tomorrow.

When it comes to texting and other messages, what you’ll see often is one, two, or many ‘x’ letters at the end of the message, or each sentence. Took me a little time, but I figured these stand for kisses (like ‘xoxo’). The x’s are also a good metric to gauge someone’s romantic interest, level of intoxication, or the extent of passive aggressiveness in their tone. Find its historic origin and examples here.

9) A Curiously Carbtastic Cuisine

Garlic bread tweet
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A lot of foreigners resent the country for its seemingly mundane cuisine. Don’t worry, though, you’ll come across very exciting variations of potatoes, meat, legumes, and cream, such as the staple fish & chips, Sunday roast, beans on toast, scones, Cornish pasties, Toad in the Hole, or potato and leek soup, not even mentioning the good ol’ full English breakfast. Plus, there’s also an abundance of curries, stir-fries, sushi, pizza, pasta, tacos, and many more – depending on the type of international restaurant you go to, of course.

Sarcasm aside, I do really appreciate the efforts they make to have more diverse, and more vegetarian/vegan-friendly meals in a lot of places, including university canteens. While not every town can be as much of a vegan’s paradise as, let’s say, Brighton, most cafés now have plant-based milk alternatives, and supermarkets are full of veggie substitutes and some cruelty-free products. And thanks to the many immigrants bringing their tasty cuisine over, it’s easier to get hold of authentic ingredients from all over the world – be it from Poland or Korea – than most places in Europe.

Most importantly, however, let’s not forget about the uncanny enthusiasm they possess for garlic bread and chips, and the agility they’ll put them on the side of any plate, even if it’s pasta or pizza, which, to my understanding, pretty much already covers one’s required daily carb-intake; yet, this habit still makes people (including myself) all giddy.

10) A Workout for your Hearing Gear

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Remember those exercises in English class where you had to carefully eavesdrop on two people’s ordinary conversation who somehow got stuck inside a cassette player? They were usually called something like Robert and Sally, and they were giving each other directions or planning an upcoming party – all in beautiful, standard English that would put BBC presenters to shame, with maybe the faint sound of a bus passing by in the background. Did you get all your answers correct in the quiz afterwards? Well, forget that, for there are no amount of English classes in the world that could prepare you for the impossible task of deciphering the announcements screeching from the speakers of Southwest Trains’ (or just about any train’s) carriages. Usually, just when you’re finally able to sit down somewhere on a Friday evening rush hour train, the speakers will mumble something about half of the train proceeding to your desired destination, and the other half getting cut off to go to a place called something like Barton-upon-Humber or Thornaby-on-Tees, and you’ll have no idea which half you’re in.

11) The Pub of all Pubs

English pub culture is famous, but I had no idea half of them were a part of a chain. Wetherspoon’s pubs all bear the names of literary figures, nature, and other romantic elements, such as The Mary Shelley or The Moon in the Square, but they all belong to the same chain. Every pub’s interior looks more akin to a library with its antique wooden furniture, bookshelves, and carpet. How it doesn’t smell disgusting of all the beer spilt on it over the years remains a mystery to me. This cheap and cheerful joint is the preferred location for end of month pre-drinks and hangover-curing full English breakfasts.

12) It’s Not You, It’s Them

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Being the overly self-conscious person that I am, in the first year or so of living in England, I felt terrible when people wouldn’t understand my accent and what I was saying. The more they asked to repeat what I had said, the more anxious I became, and the more inaudibly I uttered the words. I kept thinking that despite the dozen years I had spent manicuring my English skills, my pronunciation still sucked so much that I just couldn’t be understood. Later, I started noticing that when they talked to someone who came from a town just 2 hours north of theirs, a lot of awkward nodding took place, and “I have no idea what they just said,” phrases were uttered to friends. So, if you’re dealing with the same issue, fear not, my fellow foreign friend, it’s not just you; they don’t understand each other, either.

Did I miss something? Share your own British revelations in the comments!



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